This was when baseball and boxing topped the sports world. Prior to the establishment of our Sunday afternoon rituals on couch and tavern. Long before the league generated millions and then billions in rights fees, which later came due in the form of millions and then billions in license fees.
This goes back just under a half-century to Dec. 28, 1958 at (the old) Yankee Stadium (RIP), where the New York Giants (their warm-up jackets sported the interlocking NY) hosted the Baltimore Colts in what would become known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
The 9 p.m. lead-out from the Heisman Trophy presentation on Dec. 13, ESPN’s documentary spliced archival and coaches’ film from both camps, with Bob Wolff’s radio call dubbed in, to capture most (perhaps the upcoming DVD includes all the plays) of the action.
Colorized to reflect an icy in in spots, grassless surface at the Stadium, the film reveals that the greatest game was rife with turnovers, more than a few examples of Sam Huff’s violent world, a key goal-line stand (finished by a stunning faux pas) and the unveiling of the two-minute drill as practiced by maestro John Unitas. From this perch, the attuned precision of Johnny U. to wideout Raymond Berry is the game takeaway, not Alan Ameche’s immortalized OT end-zone plunge.
Footage is interspersed with conversations between key players — the contest included the participation of 17 pro football Hall of Fame gamers and coaches — and members of the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants, winners of the past two Super Bowls. Discussions center on the difference and similarities between contracts and playoff dollars, strategies and techniques. The always entertaining Colt D-lineman, Bronx-born Art Donovan, is paired to particular jocular effect with Michael Strahan. Some would argue Strahan’s Giants 17-14 upset of the then undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII is the NFL’s greatest game.
Anecdotes also come in the form of Colts cheerleaders and band members who performed at halftime and recollections of director Barry Levinson (the Colts were very much on his Diner menu) and Neil Leifer, then a 16-year-old who photographed Ameche’s game-clinching touchdown.
Time is spanned in the image of the expiring game clock, perched above the grand stand, framed by the subway train rolling by above the old Stadium’s grandstand.
Also harkening to today are a couple of key plays that would have no doubt undergone the enervating scrutiny that is instant replay. Not that the film’s forensic mechanism, photographical mapping, is an improvement on Ed Hochuli.
But save for a game-saving, broken field run by Stan Rotkiewicz, a business manager for NBC News working as a statistician, the 45 million who watched the contest on NBC would have missed its conclusion
Add up this package on its own merits – and what it meant to ushering the NFL into the nation’s consciousness and our living rooms– and it’s a couple of Saturday night hours very well spent.